We are thrilled to share with you the next installment of our #WomenWhoLead interview series. Over the holidays, Sarah had the opportunity to sit down with Liz Forkin Bohannon, founder of Sseko Designs, in her hometown of Portland, OR. It was an hour or two of laughs, lightbulb moments and complete inspiration all centered around Liz and Sseko Designs, a now multi-product, international ethical fashion brand that got it's start when Liz took a trip to Uganda shortly after completing her University studies in 2008.
It was on that trip - which was initially intended to grow her experience in the communications world - that she built her first meaningful relationships and connections with women living in and experiencing extreme poverty. And, it was then that she connected in a new way to something that had been a distanced concern of hers for years: the gap in gender equality and education. Without a question in her heart and mind, she stayed in Uganda, and slowly built what is now an organization that supports women in Uganda with fair wages and a workplace founded on dignity, honor and dedication.
Not to mention, Sseko supports women in Uganda with the work experience and money needed—and usually very hard to access—to go to University.
We are celebrating Liz for her unwavering commitment to seeing the women she has met, and continues to meet, thrive. And, for her desire to grow herself, her business and a country through each and every pair of sandals those amazing women make.
Where do you think your innate drive for your work originates from?
I think some of it comes from having kind of an obsessive personality. I am either completely all in and obsessed with something, and I can’t not focus on it and I think about it and I dream about it and I wake up in the middle of the night OR I can’t care less and can’t convince myself to care about it - it’s one or the other. Plus I have this ability (that totally annoys my husband!) to tune out anything I don't want in my brain space – when I am focused on something there’s little that can happen to distract me from what I’m doing or working on.
I think another part of it is being a combination of my mom and dad. My dad is an entrepreneur himself, and is always seeing opportunities in places that others don't and goes after it, and my mom is a modern day Mother Theresa; she’s very others focused. My goal is to land somewhere between those two things: being able to be hyper focused on something and going after it and always being able to not fall into the trap of it being about me and my success.
In going to Uganda and seeing an opportunity for the communities you met, what had you in that moment choose to step up and say ‘Yes, this is it’?
I look back on my life and it's a series of all these little choices, but I don't think it felt like that at the time. I made a choice to go to Uganda and be a part of their community, then met these women, and saw this problem firsthand that I cared about in a heady way but not in a ‘Hey, this affects my life’ kind of way, then all of a sudden I was in a relationship with these women and facing this massive problem and once I saw all the aspects of it’s effect come into play, I just thought, ‘Okay, what’s next?’.
My story does not involve leaping – emotionally. Every day I continued to wake up and say ‘Obviously this is what I have to do today’ and ‘Obviously this is what I have to do tomorrow’, and then the next day and the next. The most powerful moments are when I realize that there are 60 people around the world who have decided that they are in and ready to contribute. There have been moments in our story when it feels like we are on the edge of the cliff, but at the end of the day we know we need to keep going, keep moving forward.
Have you had a moment when you said ‘This is my purpose, this is my calling. I am never doing anything else.’?
In the very beginning, I remember feeling that I will never do anything else; that as long as Sseko exists I will be a part of it. I still feel that way today, maybe less so than when I was 21. It hasn’t felt like my calling necessarily because I have never really felt equipped to do it, to be honest: I went to school to be a journalist and now I run a shoe company. I’ve never felt that I was the perfect person for the job and have always struggled with thinking that there are so many people out there that could do this better than I can, but I have always felt a steady sense of knowing this is my story.
How I see my story is that part of if is about me effecting change and me being a part of the story for other women. And then a big part of it is that Sseko is this instrument in my life that is being used to carve things out of me, sharpen me in certain ways, and prune me of certain things. I feel like generating a profession and business and then having that thing [Sseko] also generate me is what my story is really about.
Why do you lead?
My most honest answer is that I have a really good vision of what I want the world to look like and I want people to buy into it and help me. I really believe that this is what the world could look like but I can’t do it by myself and I need other people to be a part of it. And I love seeing those people access a different part of themselves; to witness them have a realization that they are really needed.
My background is in the development space – charity, sponsorship, foreign aid, etc. My favorite part about running a business and having a team is this idea that it completely eliminates the giver and the receiver, the dichotomy of which always made me uncomfortable. But running a team and getting to see others understand that they have to show up, be fearless, be creative and be humble to succeed and how it doesn't work if everyone doesn’t show up is the best part of the business. I love that we’re all in it together – sink or swim.
You mentioned your vision – what is it?
I have a vision of creating a world where there is an underlying assumption between people that there is inherent value in one another and that we all have something to learn from each other. I feel like if humans in general took the posture of being open to learning through each other’s differences, as opposed to clinging to things that are so different about one another, there are so many things about the world today that would be different.
Part of that might be naive because I don't believe we will ever live in a world that is completely governed by that but I think there can be more of it and I think that it isn’t necessarily all or nothing. I believe that incremental shifts in societies, cultures, communities, families and friend groups towards that way of being DO matter.
What are some goals for you in 2015?
I think 2015 is going to be a big year for us. 2014 was a hard year with lots of questions around direction, growth, and what were focusing on. There was lots of pruning and stretching and ideas rubbing up against each other. Goals for 2015 are more focused on solidifying who we are in this new phase. We have been in start-up mode with everything on the table (our values, processes, etc.) and as a company we are getting to a place where we know those things. The fundamentals are in pace and now we have to figure out how we grow and scale what we are doing while maintaining integrity and authenticity in the things that drive us.
One of the biggest focuses for me is how we will continue to grow a team and maintain a sense of knowing each other. We have a small team spread out over four countries and time zones, so keeping people connected, engaged and rooting for one another in the context of what we’re doing, as opposed to seeing people get focused on ‘their area’ as we grow is the goal. We want to grow a team that really works well together, loves each other a lot and works their ass off too.
We have some big dreams about expanding and figuring out what a good timeline for that is, so we’re getting a handle on that. It’s a fine balance of seeing new opportunities or needs and wanting to move forward on them, while keeping up with other projects that are in existence today that we need to work on, steward,move forward and grow.
What do you think your biggest learning or a key defining moment has been along this journey?
One of the biggest things that I have learned is that there’s basically nothing that’s going to sink the ship. However, sometimes you have react to things as if they are the things that are going to sink the ship while maintaining the knowing that it’s NOT going to be the end. I would rather maintain the emotional state that it’s NOT going to sink but still take the business super seriously and work super hard on it.
What are some of the speaking moments or communities you contribute to, or gigs you get that you feel compelled to contribute to?
There’s two different answers to that. There are things that I want to be a part of myself, which is any type of gathering where there are interesting people there who are working hard towards something and want to create something – whether that’s creating something in a classic sense or creating something that is making change.
I also have the personality type that is pretty challenging - so I am compelled towards communities and people groups that don't think the way I think because I want to spark something in them. There have been some fun, surprising opportunities to speak to a group of people that, for the most part, have a totally different view of how to live life - and I feel super inspired by that. For example, I recently spoke to a group business men in Atlanta and could choose my topic. So, I chose gender equality. I thought that if that I had the chance to create one change or one shift mindset or perspective with a talk on gender equality, it was worth it.
How do you continue to develop yourself/continue to grow?
Listening better. When I am in a really healthy place, I am in a posture of listening. It comes from two main sources: a spiritual level, where I ask myself what do I need to learn, what am I ignoring, what am I walking through, etc. and the other is for my community.
The majority of the ways I need to grow and change I see reflected in the people that surround me: in the ways that I’m not being a good friend, not being a good wife, or hurting people or making mistakes as opposed to having a posture of wanting to be someone that people think is awesome and is a great friend, awesome wife or super boss.
I am working on having enough self confidence and peace that I am willing to hear and look for the times that I am falling short, or I am being selfish or hurting people unintentionally or I’m not being aware of myself. If you’re willing to listen, its not hard to find the situations where you can see that you could have done something better.
I’m practicing quieting myself and my own desires, as I want my own change to come out of a sense of peace and not a sense of fear. I can recognize that I am not who I want to be today, and that I don't have to change frantically to be someone now that's perfect or together. But, I also don't want to be someone who doesn't have a vision for how they can change. I’m looking to see how I can be a person that is okay with where they are, and be ready for the slow and steady journey and process of changing that constantly requires you to go back to the drawing board and listen to the people around you and be open - which is also way easier said than done.
Who are some women leaders that inspire you?
There are some women in my life that I am super inspired by. I have a mentor here in Portland that's been a huge blessing. She’s such a fiery, feisty, driven woman but she also has such an awareness of others in this cycle of giving and receiving that I am inspired by. Bravery is the trait – specifically in women – that compels me the most. Sometimes it's women out in the world that are doing amazing cool things and taking risks and sometimes it’s my friends that are facing really quiet and not glamorous things and still choosing to walk forward; to fight for joy, fight for perspective. I am as inspired by that as I am by someone leading a Fortune 500 company.
What’s your take on leading from the soul?
I don't know what the others options are I guess. It feels like circling back to the very first question that you asked - I don't often find myself where I am debating whether or not we do something, I move forward from ‘this is what I’m doing next’.
Learn more about Liz and the amazing community of Sseko Designs.
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